I had a chance to sit down and play a Korean demo of the game on the show floor this week, which was quite an experience in itself. Although I couldn't read a word on the screen (it was generally translated for me), and the game isn't even in closed beta yet, I thought I should relay my impressions of the public's first playable demo.
Not only that, but I also got a chance to sit down with Producer/Director James Bae to answer the questions I had about the game as it stands. Follow along after the jump for more on Blade & Soul at G-Star 2010.
This demo -- much like the Guild Wars 2 demo at Gamescom and PAX earlier this year -- was a timed session, but only within the beginning tutorial. I played through a highly scripted starter area to get the feel for the game's controls and storyline.
For this reason, I'm not able to comment on much else with the game. But from what I did see, I liked.
First off, I wanted to make sure to ask about the recent rumors of the game's testing being delayed until 2012, as reported by MMOsite earlier this month. Mr. Bae says that was a complete misunderstanding from an earnings conference call and not what was meant to come across at all. NCsoft is still aiming for closed beta testing in Korea by the end of this year, but the team made sure to say that it will be done when it's ready.
There is also some confusion about a console version being available at launch. While the game is aiming to be launched on consoles, we were specifically told that no contracts were signed with either Microsoft or Sony on any console deals, despite previous rumors about Sony's announced PS3 contract.
Blade & Soul is a martial arts MMO, which means it's very high on action. Usually, this would also translate as low on story (or at least involve some crazy cliche about avenging the death of one's family), but not in B&S.
Much of the game is segmented by compelling cinematics. These are meant to draw you into what's happening, so you know why you're killing this guy over here when 10 minutes ago he was your friend (oh, spoiler alert!).
This game was developed with an interesting concept in mind, according to Mr. Bae. So far, we've played our fantasy games as traditional European medieval fantasy, but now it might be time to learn the medieval history of Korea. Will this be as interesting to a global audience, though? If you're tired of the same old fantasy, then the answer is yes.
The current plan is to launch globally as one game (Korean launch first), with only language localization changes. There won't be a version with different game mechanics created for Europe or one for North America specifically, but one for everyone. Bae isn't worried about trying to cater to every market, but says that the company has an open plan to change for certain markets, depending on the feedback from the players. This is a vision NCsoft says it's stuck with since Aion.
This also means that the storyline will stay consistent across all markets. I can respect that, considering the fact that there are already MMOs for pretty much every situation you can imagine. Staying true to the original vision, while still keeping situational tweaks and improvements in mind for the future, is a good thing.
As you might guess, a martial arts MMO has action in its combat. I know, shocker, right? But this is a bit more than just seeing how fast you can click the mouse buttons.
The controls are simple, but not boring. There's an attack button (the R key) which you press repeatedly for a basic attack until you build up enough power to perform certain skills and skill combos. This isn't a long process, and each class has its own name for the power you build. The more powerful skills can be either defensive or offensive.
At first glance, the skill bar seems small, with only four slots available (plus the basic attack), but with higher levels and quest progression, you gain quite an arsenal of skills that change according to the situation. For example, if you're on a mount, the skills change to ones only available while mounted. They also change depending on what position your enemy is in, so ranged skills are available until you close in on your enemy, when melee skills open up automatically. With the variety of situations available, I'm told this opens up around 60 skills for use, total. It seems very similar to what Guild Wars 2 is offering for its skill system.
From a Western viewpoint, B&S looks a lot like Aion. I know, but I can't help make the comparison. This is far from a bad thing, as Aion has some of the most gorgeous visuals in any current MMO. The character animations and scenery are very similar to what we've come to expect from NCsoft in not only Aion, but Lineage II as well.
In true Korean style, the movements and character visuals are way over-the-top. Just take a look at some of the screenshots or the newest trailer to see what I mean. You can literally jump over a small house while wearing a set of plate armor. Mr. Bae says this is a style he wanted to make sure was in the game, similar to something like the movement in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie.
Will there be PvP? Will there be crafting? How about expanions or a cash shop? What about an endgame? These are all questions that remain unanswered for now, as NCsoft is still reluctant to reveal those details until it's definitely decided. What we had to see at G-Star was a demo specifically for the event, so there wasn't much more to play around with and the business model hasn't been selected.
I really enjoyed my time with Blade & Soul, and I can see why it's gained such a following in these early stages. In Korea, NCsoft is god, and for good reason. But for North America and Europe, that status hasn't held as true. While Aion is the most popular online game in Korea right now, it seems to have stagnated in the west. I fear that Blade & Soul may fall into that same rut for mostly everyone reading this site, as opposed to a Korea-specific MMO news site. The general attraction for a game with such over-the-top martial arts style and deep Korean history might not be what Westerners want to play. That doesn't reflect on the game itself; it just speaks to the cultural differences in game preference.
But if you can keep an open mind and you don't mind some compelling combat and a refreshingly new version of the fantasy genre, then keep your eye on this one. It will be another title to watch in the exciting new year of 2011.